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Legion Magazine – May/June 2002 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – May/June 2002

Any inveterate reader about Canadians at war is familiar with the clashing attitudes there are about sustaining any meaningful significance and understanding through many generations of what our predecessors did, and why they did it. This essay is largely my wrestle with conscience and realities on sustaining remembrance today and in the century ahead of the Canadians who served and suffered so long ago.

About seven years ago, I began to notice the products in print being generated through the determination of Norm Christie. His aim was to end the erosion of memory and recall regarding the actions and losses of Canadians in the Great War of 1914–18. Although too young for WW II he had served in Western Europe with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (which cares for some 2,900 burial grounds in France). He chose to come home and launch a publishing enterprise—CEF Books—which would produce and sell original, popular booklets on actions involving Canadians and publish existent memoirs and autobiographies by Canadians soldiers which were out of print or had been written but not published.

Recently there was a fresh spate from the Christie enterprise, including two truly classic, Canadian memoirs of WW I and several new booklets in CEF’s Access To History series, including several on WW II themes. These well-illustrated, smoothly edited booklets are excellent reminders of Canadian deeds and their costs.

Before the first Christmas of the 1914-18 war the German sweep into France had been stabilized by French and British troops long enough for an increasingly static front to take shape in the form of trenches and dug-outs that ran almost 500 miles from the Channel coast near the French-Belgian border to the French-Swiss border. The British armies in France in which the substantial Canadian Corps served mostly held the western half of that long line of trenches in or near where several million men were killed, including most of the 60,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the Great War.

In combination the two latest “classics” resurrected by Christie are masterpieces of description, giving a reader the feeling of being there and understanding what went on as a recruit melded into a unit, was trained and transported, usually to Britain, of which he got at least an inkling before dispatch to France and then to some grim yards “in the line.” The first classic was a best-seller in 1931, the product of Will R. Bird, a Nova Scotian, by then nationally known as a novelist and a journalistic interpreter of veterans’ interests. The book’s title was Thirteen Years After, a paperback of 275 pages. Will Bird’s perspectives from the 12-year interval blends but doesn’t lose either the immediacy of the author’s thorough familiarity with the Canadian battles and the course of war on the Western Front or the nagging frustration among veterans, early in the Great Depression, that the sacrifices of both killed and survivors already seemed forgotten or no longer important. Bird imparts the truly grand scale and the nation-knitting quality of the Canadian contribution within the Allied forces to the ultimate victory without chest-thumping.

The second classic is a grand, belated bonus—a detailed, linear account of his war by a smart, observant lad from St. Thomas who left a safe, railroading job in 1915 for the army and ultimate service at the front in the Mississauga Horse, or the 75th Infantry Battalion. A reader of the book will not be surprised that after the war John Harold Becker the author of Silhouettes Of The Great War, later had a long career as an executive with Chrysler Corporation and as a starter of Canadian Legion activity in the United States. He hand-wrote the manuscript of some 700 pages—probably in the early 1930s. His daughter, who brought it to public notice, describes her father as a “saver,” notably of anything to do with the army or where he had been. I marvel as a reader how any soldier could have been so busy with his unit or when on courses or leaves—and so lucid in setting it down. Of course, the key to this had to be a strong curiosity and a phenomenal memory. Like so many other accounts by soldiers of the Great War there’s much time and interest given to keeping in touch by visits, letters, and shared leaves with comrades and relatives from one’s home region.

Becker might easily have been one of the 60,000 Canadians killed, not just one of the many wounded. Anyone reading him will reject the cynical postwar view of the soldiers of the conflict as simple, unaware “cannon fodder.” He was too keen, fit, sane, and competent to be an unwitting victim of political and military stupidity.

Among the illustrations in Silhouettes is a clear, group picture that fascinated me. It was taken in June 1918 and presents 22 soldiers, originally of the Elgin Regiment who had wound up in the Mississauga Horse. These ordinary soldiers are dressed as though for leave. What an alert, healthy crew. They radiate readiness and vitality. The caption lists their names and indicates of the 22, seven were killed, and seven more were wounded. So, seven dead, seven wounded with Becker among them, and eight who survived without injury and came home. Those were the odds in the Canadian infantry. A third book about WW I came to me in the mail while I was savouring these two fine accounts, courtesy of Norm Christie. The book, a hardback of 205 pages, published in 1996 by Douglas & McIntyre is titled Back To The Front: An Accidental Historian Walks The Trenches Of World War I. The author, Stephen O’Shea, is a Canadian, born in 1956. He was a journalist working in Paris in the 1980s when he became interested in visiting segments of the old front-line of the Great War, beginning with the Somme sector. He began reading through the immense literature on the war, covering most of the premiere works by authors of renown, most of whom were very critical of the repetitious slaughter along the long front through four long years.

As O’Shea became more familiar with the geography and critical episodes of the war he also became more involved in viewing and studying the pattern of their arrangements and designs. The backbone of the book is a close account of his travels, day by day, whenever he had holiday breaks for a sizeable segment. The narrative is larded with literary references and relevant or curious items of history. He walked, or cycled, and sometimes hitch-hiked. Mainly, however, he followed the long band of trenches or through nearby fields and copses. Overwhelmingly the landscape is rural. While hundreds of villages destroyed by shell-fire have been rebuilt these seemed flat and boring to O’Shea. It was also clear that six to seven decades after the Armistice there were relatively few visits of relatives and friends to the cemeteries and the memorials, a contrast to the surges that came in the 1920s and 1930s.

The author covers quite closely the relative highpoints of the campaigns along the front in Flanders and others, putting a close focus on the terrible battles like the Somme in 1916, Ypres, Passchendaele, and Verdun. By and large, however, he sticks to his task: a running commentary along the trench line from Nieuport on the Channel to the Belfort gap nigh the Rhine.

Author O’Shea has a pervasive scepticism about the grim, recurrence of extravagant losses in bootless attacks during most months before a war of movement opened in the late summer of 1918. Despite this bias he succinctly sketches the titanic consequences which flowed from the eventual victory, for example, in multiple re-arrangements of borders and nations in Europe, the end of so many royal dynasties, and the emergence of communism as a serious, political factor in most countries of the continent.

But let me get to the thinking in O’Shea’s book which had me raging. I was once so angry I did something rare: throwing the book against the nearest wall. To be fair, the author tells us early that his parents created “a family animus that verged on the fanatical” against war and militarism. “In our home, career soldiers were routinely referred to as ‘professional assassins”.

After one early excursion in Flanders he wrote: “The problem of history and hate continues to nag. When the cult of the past involves the war, the freedom to speculate shrinks, for the more destructive the activity, it seems, the more zealous its curators. Even far from the battlefield in North America, remembrance of wars past regularly brings out the thought police. Veterans groups act as self-appointed censors of large swaths of history, shrieking like outraged virgins whenever the record is challenged…. Intolerance came disguised as warrior virtue.” And he gives two examples of this: the attacks in Canada in 1992 on The Valour And The Horror and the Smithsonian Institute’s cancelling of its Enola Gay exhibit in 1992. Shortly after this he lets go the piety that “The past belongs to everyone. It’s too important to be left to professionals.”

It was British memorializing in or near a rebuilt Ypres which sparked the paragraphs by O’Shea which somewhat assuaged my anger because, however contentious his opinions may be his rationale is rational. For example, he writes: “The British saw Ypres as a mausoleum. The stupendous profligacy with which those in command wasted lives in the defence of this Belgian backwater called for an extravagant peacetime riposte. Well before the armistice the authorities in London ordered elaborate and expensive plans drawn up for commemorations, graveyards, statuary, and the like.

“A new sacredness, a civic religion, would have to be invented to ward off mounting nihilism—all the suffering had to be made legitimate so that those in power would not be blamed. Thus was born the modern war memorial, a mix of accountancy exactitude and the notion of universal victimhood. Determine the correct tally of the dead, etch their names in stone, and avoid the sticky question of responsibility by implying that such a regrettable calamity occurred independently of human agency. At Ypres the British invented the 20th-century response to war. By commissioning a stone ledger of the lost, the State, through its very punctiliousness, can be absolved. Visitors to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington will recognize the device.”

Later O’Shea assesses the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge—”a showpiece of Canadian nationalism”—with remarks whose entire meaning seems ambiguous to me. He describes it as “An enormous two-tined Dalmatian marble monument that rises from a vast lawn. Into those two pylons and their base Walter Seymour Allward sculpted a score of larger-than-life allegorical figures to represent attributes of the nation and the emotions of its citizens. Grief is the figure most photographed….“Behind the well-tended lawn is a well-tended battlefield, several acres of mine craters, shell holes and trenches having been preserved under a soothing cover of greenery…. Vimy surprises me. It departs from the discretion usually associated with Canada. The nationalism displeases but is inevitable given the imaginative importance of this spot for earlier generations. As a theatre of memory, however, the setting is peerless. I don’t leave proud to be a Canadian. I leave even more wary of anyone in a uniform.”

So Stephen O’Shea in Back To The Front roused me and I am still tussling over two questions he has me asking.

Firstly, is most recall of the war years largely set and continued by conservatively minded relicts with military experience?

Secondly, how long may memories of Canadians in the two world wars be carried on with real significance, given an educational system which has put history to the periphery of our schools and the expiry in the next decade of almost all of us who recall WW II and in our youth learned much about the Great War?